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This year promises no shortage of great local jazz releases, but Love might end up being the best of the lot. It’s the second album by trombonist Reginald Cyntje, whose 2011 record, Freedom’s Children: A Celebration, established his compositional chops. It also established his recurring motives: Caribbean traditions (Cyntje is from St. Thomas), humanism, and social justice. The last of these is less apparent on Love, though it looms in the background like Hemingway’s Great War; meanwhile, the album explores Cyntje’s other drivers through a study of seven virtues.
Take the title track, for example. “Love” is not a love song in any traditional sense; it has no lyrics—only Christie Dashiell’s pretty, wordless vocal—nor is its mood romantic, fond, or even particularly joyful. It’s written as languorous reverie, a contemplation rather than an outward expression of affection. Cyntje’s solo drives it home: It lingers, probes, and muses, gaining passion only in its closing measures (propelled by a crescendo from drummer Amin Gumbs). Then there’s “Respect,” an even more abstruse concept for instrumental music, presented here through a lively, themeless jam session. The musicians demonstrate the title instinct via interplay—pianist Allyn Johnson’s rhythmic conversation with Gumbs and bassist Herman Burney cooks—and response. Guest Todd Marcus wields his bass clarinet with the phrasing of a fiery tenor saxophonist, but many of those phrases are also subversions and variations on the figures in Johnson’s preceding solo. Victor Provost, in turn, follows logically on the steelpan where Marcus leaves off, and in close pursuit of the rhythm section.
But Love is not all abstract expressionism. While “Beauty” takes an introspective stance, thanks to Cyntje’s sumptuous, long-note meditation over a syncopated vamp, it can’t help explicitly delivering what its title promises. Johnson is particularly sublime, flowering from lithe, delicate figures into denser chordal structures that both develop melodically and challenge Gumbs and Burney’s thumping foursquare beat. “Determination” hits that beat even harder: The whole ensemble works a theme worthy of a New Orleans brass band, and solos by Provost, Cyntje, Johnson, and Burney in turn explore dark minor-key tensions, then sunlight. A little on-the-nose, perhaps, but effective.
“Faith,” meanwhile, is the tune most reliant on lyrics. Dashiell provides a recurring refrain (“We have faith, we have trust/We have hope and love”) between stanzas written and delivered with masterfully percussive inflection by Lasana Mack; the latter appear more about commitment and confidence (“Determined to live the vision of yesterday’s dream/Sincere allegiance to the promise”), but they are about faith in oneself. What seems a roundabout lyrical approach suddenly crystallizes. “Hope Poem,” set to a reggae groove, is clearer (“Beautiful gift/Daughter of desires/Thank you for not forsaking me”); the delivery, though, is unconventional, with Heidi Martin first reciting the words in stereo, then Mack repeating them, a stanza behind, in only the right channel. The effect is vexing, but oddly rousing.
These pieces reflect Cyntje’s social-justice vision—a universal and idealistic one—only when combined, a puzzle completed by the listener. Each piece, however, is thoughtful and surpassingly gorgeous, which only spurs that assembly onward. D.C. jazz has a tough act to follow.
Reginald Cyntje performs Thursday at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club (with the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Orchestra), Friday at Jazz Night in Southwest (CD release show), and Saturday at the BlackRock Center for the Arts (with the James Bazen Big Band).